My Happy Life.
Soft Skull Press. 2007. 160 pp.
If there ever was a victim of fate, it is the protagonist of My Happy Life. The (nameless) narrator in Lydia Millet's novel repeatedly undergoes the worst forms of physical and emotional abuse. Abandoned as a baby, she moves from one nightmare foster home to another, where she is molested, raped, and beaten. She is also hit by a car, struck by lightning, and kidnapped.
My Happy Life, however, refuses to be classified as a "Tale of a Victim" (or its ubiquitous evil twin, "Story of a Survivor"). For the narrator of this novel is, strangely enough, happy. She is grateful for all that comes her way; every situation that seems hopeless to us readers is revealed to harbor the seeds of delight for her. When we meet the protagonist at the start of the novel, she has been left to die in a building on the verge of demolition. But this young woman finds humor in her desperate situation, telling us that she has survived by eating the toothpaste and shampoo and soap, but "would not advise" consuming the wall plaster. She sees beauty in the trivial—a pressed gingko leaf, a sliver of glass, and her hospital-supplied paper shoes; "These things", she reveals, "are lovely." Her boundless compassion even provides comfort when at the receiving end of brutality. Raped while at school, she thinks of the perpetrator as a warrior who "would never cease wanting" and "never cease trying," and confesses she loves him.
I'd normally be impatient with a willfully blind narrator who refuses to accept or even acknowledge her abuse, but I was hypnotized by Millet's astonishing control of her story into devouring this book in one breathless gulp. My Happy Life reminds us anew of what the novel can achieve in the hands of skilled artist, for here is a voice so convincing that the reader believes the implausible. Millet precisely balances her protagonist's character on the knife edge between innocence and ignorance, and the result is a superbly realized portrayal of a mentally deficient woman betrayed by the system. The grace with which the heroine transmutes her bleak reality into joyous memories ultimately stands as a devastating indictment of society's treatment of the less fortunate.
The narrator at times seems to be living in a dream world where (her) perception is more important than reality, and the novel's prose reflects a similar dream-like quality. At one point, the narrator says:
Back then, when I was young, events were like soft memories are now. In fact I cannot say for sure that those events I am recounting, all of my life before this room, were not just always memories themselves, given to me along with my toenails or eardrums, as a gift.
Millet's poetic words propel us into understanding and even admiring this young woman, her bizarre optimism becomes wondrous rather than naive.
My to-be-read list is now headed by Millet's other work; why has it taken me so long to make the acquaintance of this superb writer?
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